Real-world mythology and folklore is often used to flesh out setting in video game worlds. Last year’s God of War saw Kratos, who in previous games systematically beat down creatures and gods from Greek mythology, as a fish-out-of-water interacting with the Norse pantheon of gods. Japanese games are often infused with local folklore, from the innocent recounting of New Year’s dreams to the more sinister aspects involving ghostly figures with long black hair. Atma, created by small developer Team Atma, utilises the fascinating world of Hindu mythology to paint a backdrop for the game’s story of love and loss. With intricate pixel art and solid level design, this project shows a lot of potential. Some spoilers are discussed below, so if you’re interested in giving the game a go, I recommend playing it first.
In the world of Atma, humans and spirits peacefully coexist, aided by the work of guardians who strive to keep the world in balance. In attempting to create a powerful talisman he was forbidden to make, guardian Atma breaks the delicate balance between the worlds, setting demons free and getting trapped in the process. As his grieving partner Shaya, the player must bring balance back to the world and try to save Atma’s soul from an eternal purgatory.
Shaya’s journey to save Atma plays much like a traditional RPG, with people to talk to, locales to explore, puzzles to solve, and choices to make. As a guardian herself, Shaya has access to some extraordinary powers. Reminiscent of the painting mechanic in Okami, the player can draw brushstrokes across the screen, causing changes to the environment such as lining up platforms and cutting down enemies. Later in the adventure, Shaya also gains power over the wind, blowing to push blocks or spread fire from one area to another. The powers as a gameplay mechanic are generally implemented well, with some interesting puzzle design and the final boss fight using the skills in a variety of ways.
The controls for the abilities, however, are really fiddly. I used a gamepad, as is recommended on the splash screen, and the need to hold down right trigger while drawing with left stick felt unnatural—my right thumb kept trying to draw instead. Allowing the player to use either stick and either trigger would help immensely. While the awkwardness wasn’t a problem in the puzzle rooms, where you can take your time, when it came to the boss I felt like I couldn’t act fast enough, especially since Shaya has few hit points. I finished the battle eventually, but having to fight the controls in addition to the boss is not ideal.
The controller support in general needs some more work—some messing around was required in Steam for the game to recognise my controller, and I suffered from phantom inputs throughout the journey. While gamepad is officially recommended, I think Atma is best played with keyboard and mouse for the moment.
While the controls might be frustrating, the world of Atma is utterly stunning, with the relatively short run-time of the game extended by stopping to appreciate the detailed pixel art. I was reminded of Sword and Sworcery, but with a more colourful palette. Screen tearing does pop up every now and then, particularly in the long sweeping shot of the village. Giving the player access to v-sync options would fix this issue. In addition to the pixel art world, the game features some beautiful hand-drawn art for the times the player has to make a decision.
The choices in Atma are sprinkled throughout the playtime, but generally lack weight behind them. You can choose to support Atma attempting the ritual or try to stop him, how Shaya expresses her loss, and most importantly, whether to save the village or Atma. This decision should be a punch to the gut, but the end result is more of a shrug. The problem is, the player is never really given a reason to care about Atma. We are told about how deeply in love they were and how sad Shaya is, but it is never shown in game. Around the village are locations where the player can see a flashback to the past, but none show the relationship between Shaya and Atma blossoming. To develop an attachment within the short run time is tricky, but working on making Atma more human and likeable would heighten the impact of that last decision.
Atma is an extraordinarily beautiful game, with some great puzzles and an intriguing world. I would love to see the title fleshed out into a longer piece, with some more insight into the characters and mythology.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at Session Seven, a point-and-click horror game where you awaken beaten and alone in a locked cellar. The game can be picked up on Steam here. You can get in touch with your thoughts via Facebook, Twitter, or through our community Discord server, or you can email me here.